Tolkien, Eisenstein, and the Battle on the Ice

On March 8, 1939 J.R.R. Tolkien presented what is now considered a pivotal lecture on mythology at The University of St. Andrews, Scotland. It was titled “On Fairy- Stories” and it distinguished the mythology of the Fairy Story from that of Science Fiction and Dragon or Animal Tales as taking place in an entirely separate environment from that of this world. So Arthur and Gulliver and Grendel may provide fantastical tales but they are tied to a time and a place recognizable and regionally specific. Middle-Earth and Narnia on the other hand are their own worlds even if they do employ distinctly Anglo elements.

Tolkien became the leading writer of this genre and with praise from such luminaries as W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis he became the most critically successful as well. That is until Edmund Wilson spoiled the party by giving his widely read negative review of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in The Nation taking Tolkien to task for considering his works “adult” in nature and countering specific items of praise offered by other critics before him. An excerpt from his review concerning Sauron states:

Once Sauron’s realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye scrutinizing all that occurs from the window of a remote dark tower. This might, of course, be made effective; but actually it is not; we never feel Sauron’s power. And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat. The ring is at last got rid of by being dropped into a fiery crater, and the kingdom of Sauron topples in a brief and banal earthquake that sets fire to everything and burns it up, and so releases the author from the necessity of telling the reader what exactly was so terrible there.

Wilson was the leading literary critic in America at the time and once his reviews were out the tide began to turn against Tolkien. And the band-wagon boarding was swift. By the release of The Return of the King W.H. Auden was now having to defend against his liking the works in his positive review:

… among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

However, Mr. Wilson makes it quite clear in his review that not only is he a considerable fan of heroic quests and imaginary worlds but he is a fan of The Hobbit itself and his review, while scathing, does seem measured, critiquing the way the story is told (as evidenced by the quote above)rather than criticizing the story elements themselves. He even takes Auden to task directly:

The most distinguished of Tolkien’s admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders has been Mr. W. H. Auden. That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien’s verse – there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive – through lack of interest in the other department.- to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime – as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one’s interests – he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself.

Although there were no winners and losers in this debate the reputation of Tolkien as a great writer did take a fall after Wilson turned the critical tide against him. Of course, the books themselves, once released in paperback in the sixties became enormously successful and their popularity continues to this day. By the early 21st century the entire book (broken into three books by Tolkien’s publishers much to his objection) had been made into a grand series of epics that eventually (with the third installment The Return of the King) won the top Oscar for Best Picture. And so, as often happens with history, it is the story, not the specifics about the level of amatuerishness or professionalism of the prose, that is remembered. It would be easy to say that Tolkien won, and handily.

Which swings us in the direction of Sergei Eisenstein by way of a battle that will work its way into our story soon. Eisenstein is known to all students and scholars of film. There is not a student of film alive who does not connect his name with “montage” and rightly so although most people’s idea of montage has something to do with Rocky working out to Eye of the Tiger. Montage as Eisenstein saw it was much more complicated. The director or editor takes two or more images that are specifically unrelated, edits them together and creates a linear arc that was not present in the unrelated images themselves and thus creates a third, separate entity that now has a new meaning. The images do not have to create a linear story arc within themselves. They can be used to create a third entity that in and of itself has no beginning or end but does have meaning. For an analysis of this as it pertains to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin go here.

Eisenstein in his development as a filmmaker used montage in the linear sense and to great effect. At the time of his later work in the late thirties through the late forties he was suffering from some of the same problems that Tolkien would suffer just a few years later, only in reverse. That is, while his prose and verse (his technical skills as the director) were never in question, his stories were. He suffered the critique (whether true or not) that his movies existed for his technical skills to be displayed, rather than his technical skills being used to enhance a great story. Such is the case with Alexander Nevsky, which in many ways mirrors the problems that Edmund Wilson found with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In Alexander Nevsky the villain, like Sauron in LOTR, is without a true face. He is indeed visible, unlike Sauron, but has no character, no personality, no humanity. He (and the German hordes he leads) seems to exist only for Nevsky to defeat. And the story surrounding the true tale of Nevsky elevates it to a mythic status so that even Nevsky himself seems only designed to defeat the German hordes. He too is a man without a face.

And now film and literature, montage and verse, Nevsky and Orcs clash, or more precisely, merge, as Alexander Nevsky (released the year after Tolkien published The Hobbit),providing a fully developed Eisenstein at the very top of his abilities as an editor of montage, offers the perfect medium for Peter Jackson to take the story of LOTR and bring it to life. Eisenstein provided the technical expertise, Tolkien provided the story.

I am referring to The Battle on the Ice in Alexander Nevsky. While there were battle sequences in film before (among the first and most notable prior to this was the Civil War clash of brothers in The Birth of a Nation) none had the the elements of Nevsky. What separates Eisenstein’s miraculous sequence from Alexander Nevsky is that the build-up to the battle is more exciting than the battle itself. Just as Auden understood the journey was the thing while Wilson concentrated on the destination, Eisenstein understood the tension before the battle was where the adrenalin truly builds. It is a sequence that has so heavily influenced battle scenes in film that most filmmakers probably don’t even know they’re paying homage to it. They are doing their scene this way because the last director did it this way and on and on.

In Peter Jackson’s LOTR Trilogy, it is echoed throughout in battle after battle but most notably in the climactic battle for Gondor in The Return of the King in which many of the elements of Eisenstein’s Battle on the Ice can be found.

While students and scholars of film are familiar with Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s other works are generally little studied. They’re known, but not accorded the same analysis as Potemkin, and yet many of them, particularly the action and battle sequences of Alexander Nevsky, have been more influential on the editing of modern day action and adventure films than anything found in Potemkin. Of course, in a battle of influence Potemkin would win hands down for simply being the first to develop so many of the techniques in place today. But Nevsky refined those techniques and thus provided a clearer blueprint for modern filmmakers to follow.

Tolkien said that Fairy Stories took place in mythical worlds yet provided identifiable characters that did not seem alien no matter how fantastical. Since they drew on universal themes they seemed familiar to even the first time reader of fantasy fiction. That’s how Eisenstein feels to me. Even if you’ve never seen one of his films, they should already look familiar to you the first time you do. Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938, but it’s been remade regularly every year since.

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